PORT-AU-PRINCE – Haitians lined up Friday to vote in a crucial legislative runoff that will give the impoverished Caribbean nation its first popularly elected government since a 2004 revolt threw the country into chaos.
The runoff race for 127 parliament seats features several hundred candidates from more than a dozen parties, ranging from members of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's center-left Lavalas party to former rebels who helped unseat him from power.
Observers say a large turnout would boost President-elect Rene Preval's legislative agenda to rebuild the country, which has been battered by gang violence, the closure of many textile factories and high unemployment.
Preval's Lespwa party is likely to capture the largest number of seats, but will probably fall short of a majority and will have to forge a coalition government, observers say.
Polls were scheduled to open at 6 a.m., but election workers were still readying voting stations and only a trickle of voters had arrived by sunrise.
"We're here to vote for parliament because they will vote on the laws that will make our country better," said 26-year-old Patrick Saint-Tume, clutching his voter ID card as he stood in line at a voting station near Port-au-Prince's downtown.
Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, has not had a functioning parliament since 2003, and a huge amount of work will be needed after it is installed, said Dan Erikson, a Haiti expert with the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.
"There's no staff. There's very little in the way of physical facilities. This is basically starting from scratch," he said.
Preval, who has pledged to restore security and attract jobs after he takes power next month, has urged citizens to vote amid fears of a low turnout. But the 63-year-old former president, who shares Aristide's wide support among Haiti's poor masses, has done little campaigning for candidates of Lespwa, which means "hope" in Creole.
"We need a high level of participation so this election will be considered legitimate," said Max Mathurin, president of Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council.
Under Haiti's constitution, the party or coalition with the most parliamentary seats gets to choose the prime minister, who acts as head of government and appoints Cabinet members and most administrative posts.
Parliament also must ratify all foreign loans, making it vital to Haiti's dealings with the international community.
"If you expect Haiti to have any kind of democracy in the future, congress has to play a major role," Erikson said.
Some 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers and 3,000 Haitian police will fan out across the country to prevent election day violence. Officials have deemed 37 areas high security risks and will deploy rapid-response teams to put down any disturbances, U.N. spokesman Damian Onses-Cardona said.
Only two candidates won seats in the Feb. 7 first round of elections, which were hampered by late poll openings, delays in distributing ballots and a shortage of election workers needed to handle the crush of voters who jammed polling stations at dawn. Seats for 97 deputies and 30 senators are open in Friday's election.
Officials said they have added 3,000 election workers and improved training to ensure the vote goes smoothly.
"There were problems in the first round but we've learned a lot of lessons," Onses-Cardona said. "We can expect a good day tomorrow."
Still, some Haitians said they were not planning to vote, citing the problems in the first round. "The last time I voted I had to wait too long and people were pushing and shoving. I'm too old for that," said 69-year-old Germine Exavier.